Louie Zamperini was one of the brightest prospects for the 1940 Olympics in track and field. But when WWII started, his life would take a much different path. The story of Louie’s struggles as a young loner, a rising star, a Pacific POW, and a man trying to reclaim his life after years of torment is as unbelievable as it is inspiring. Through Louie’s tale, the depths of the human soul and will to survive are examined. As Louie spirals out of control because of trauma and becomes obsessed with a plot to kill the man who tortured him, he learns that a man is not defined by his history, but rather by the manner in which he seeks a future. Unbroken reaches into the heart of terror and shines a light on what it means to triumph.
1-Page Summary of Unbroken
The story of Unbroken, written by Laura Hillenbrand, details the life of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, from his rise to Olympic hero to his life as an American soldier in World War II. Against unimaginable odds, Louie pushed his will beyond the limits of his body and mind to allow his spirit to never be broken. His is a story of strength, courage, and redemption in the midst of madness.
From Terror to Triumph
As a young boy, Louie was known as the town terror in Torrance, California, a neighborhood south of Los Angeles, where his family moved in 1919 when he was two. Louie was a notorious thief and prankster and had trouble fitting in at school. He was often the victim of bullying, but he never cowered in the face of danger.
As a teenager, Louie was restless and sick of living a life of rules and restrictions. When his antics got him suspended from school, he was banned from participating in athletic activities. His older brother, Pete, a model student and athlete, knew Louie needed direction. He convinced the principal to let him join the track team and took responsibility for Louie’s training. Still, he couldn’t get Louie to engage. Louie left home at the age of sixteen.
After only a few days on the road, Louie realized he was wasting his life. He returned home, agreed to let Pete train him, and found he had a tremendous talent for running. Louie started competing in the mile and two-mile races, quickly making a name for himself with his impressive speed. Soon, he was beating college runners as a high school senior, and he received a scholarship to run at USC.
Louie had set his sights on another target. He wanted to run in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. All of Louie’s training was focused on getting him to the Olympics, and his dream became a reality when he came in second at the trials. Although Louie didn’t medal at the games, he drew attention by clocking the fastest final lap in history up to that point. Even Hitler was impressed.
A Dream Cut Short
Louie wasn’t satisfied with his finish at the Olympics and quickly set his mind to training and winning the mile at the 1940 Olympics in Helsinki. Those Olympics would never occur. Shortly after the 1936 games, Germany invaded Poland, setting off the events that led to WWII. As America drew closer to involvement in the war, Congress passed a draft bill with a caveat that anyone who enlisted before the draft was enacted could choose which branch they joined. To avoid random selection, **Louie enlisted with the United States Air Force and went to basic training. **
The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942 catapulted the United States into the war and Louie into active combat. He was made a bombardier and put on a crew slated to fly bombers known as B-24s. The pilot of Louie’s crew was a young man from Indiana named Phil, and the two became close friends.
Louie and Phil’s crew flew in two significant missions that helped destroy Japanese strongholds in the Pacific. On the last of these missions, their plane, the Super Man, was so badly destroyed, it was beyond repair. The crew were given a new plane, an old B-24 named the _Green Hornet _that was missing several parts. During a rescue mission, the Green Hornet experienced technical difficulties and went down in the Pacific ocean. **Only Louie, Phil, and a man named Mac survived. **
Lost at Sea
For forty-two days, Louie and the other two men drifted on two inflatable rafts in the middle of the Pacific ocean. There had been rescue missions to locate them, but they weren’t found. The men’s food and water supplies dwindled quickly, and after only a week, they were without either. For the next month, they survived by syphoning rain water into bottles, killing birds for food, and fishing with small bits of bait.
Many dangers befell the men on the boat. They were close to the equator, and the sun blazed down on them daily, weakening them and burning their skin. They suffered sores from the salt water, and sharks circled their boats daily. A Japanese fighter plane shot at them four times, but no one was hit. The assault damaged one of the rafts beyond repair, and all three men were forced to layer themselves in one raft the size of a bathtub.
All of the men were emaciated and weak, but Mac suffered the worst. He eventually died on the raft, and Louie and Phil gave him a burial at sea.
On their second-to-last day at sea, a great typhoon threatened to capsize the boat. Louie prayed to God to save them and promised to serve him always if he did. The storm pushed them toward land. Salvation was finally in sight. They’d drifted two thousand miles from the crash site.
A Different Nightmare
Louie and Phil rowed their raft toward the cluster of the Marshall Islands. They were grateful for land, but they knew they were in enemy territory. They would have to go ashore and hide until they could find a safe village. However, before they could reach shore, a Japanese ship pulled beside them and brought them aboard. This would be the last free moment of either man’s life for two years.
After being captured, the two men were interrogated and taken to a secret POW camp called Ofuna. There, they were separated, and each experienced abuse and starvation that was worse than what they’d known on the raft. The prison guards were unusually cruel and sadistic, and men were often beaten unconscious. Louie spent a year at this camp before he was transferred to Omori.
At Omori, Louie met a man who made it his life’s mission to break Louie down. His name was Mitsuhiro Watanabe, but the prisoners called him “the Bird.” There were hundreds of POWs at Omori, but the Bird singled Louie out as the “number one prisoner.” The Bird was from a privileged background but hadn’t made officer in the Japanese military. His resentment made him loathe men of higher ranks and anyone who’d been successful in civilian life. As an officer and former Olympian, Louie was the perfect target.
Over the next year, at Omori and another camp named Naoetsu, the Bird beat Louie on a daily basis. He’d hunt Louie down in the sea of POWs and beat him with sticks, punch him until he was unconscious, and threaten to kill him. He used a heavy belt buckle to whip Louie in the side of the head, and Louie went deaf in one ear for a few weeks.
Under the oppressive hand of the Bird, Louie began to disintegrate emotionally and psychologically. He dreamt of the Bird attacking him in his sleep, dreams that often ended with Louie trying to strangle his abuser. Louie swore he would never let the Bird see him afraid, but the constant abuse was chipping away at his dignity. Starving to death, sick, and desperate, Louie often had to beg the very man who tormented him for help.
Louie was offered an out from his hell one day when radio producers from Tokyo wanted him to deliver a propaganda broadcast. Louie had been officially declared dead in the United States, and the Japanese wanted to use Louie to embarrass the American government. If he complied, he could live in a furnished room and eat large lavish meals. Louie refused. He wouldn’t become a pawn in the enemy’s game.
The abuse continued up until a few days before the war’s end. It was 1948, and both Germany and Japan had surrendered. The Americans brought supplies to the POW camps and eventually liberated them. Louie just made it. He’d developed a fatal vitamin deficiency that was on the verge of killing him days before they were saved. Louie and other POWs looked for the Bird, but he’d already escaped.
The nation was captivated by Louie’s story of survival. He became an instant celebrity and gave many speeches about his experiences. But inside, Louie suffered from crippling PTSD. He experienced night terrors, flashbacks, and aggressive behavior. Every night he dreamed that the Bird was abusing him, and every night he dreamed of strangling him.
When Louie first came home, he met and married a young woman named Cynthia Applewhite. He loved her from the moment he saw her and wanted to give her a good life. But with his running career over because of injuries sustained in the prison camp and no job prospects, he began to falter. Louie drank heavily to keep his demons away and became obsessed with a revenge plot to travel to Japan and murder the Bird.
For four years, Louie spun out of control. Even the birth of his daughter couldn’t stop his drinking or murderous thoughts. It wasn’t until he went to a Billy Graham sermon that he was able to find relief. At the sermon, he was reminded of the promise he made to God on the raft. Louie realized he hadn’t fulfilled his end of the deal. He quit drinking and smoking and started preaching the word of God, telling his story around the world, now through the lens of gratitude and faith.
Happily Ever After
Louie dedicated the rest of his life to helping others in need. He continued to speak at events, opened a therapeutic retreat for troubled teens, and volunteered with seniors. He traveled back to Japan and was able to find forgiveness for those who tormented him. But he never saw the Bird again.
After leaving the camp, the Bird went on the run from authorities for seven years. When the hunt for war criminals ended, he came out of hiding and became a successful businessman in Tokyo. In the late 1990s, Watanabe gave an interview, in which he waffled between remorse and self-righteousness. He maintained that he was just doing his job and was a victim of wartime hysteria. He was offered an opportunity to meet with Louie, both close to 80 years old, but he declined. He died in 2003.
For Louie, life moved on, and he never again lost his zeal for living. He started running again and continued to through his sixties. In his 70s, he took up skateboarding. In his 90s, he was still skiing and climbing trees. He received numerous awards and honors, and his childhood home was declared a historic monument. Louie carried the torch at five Olympic opening ceremonies, including the 1998 Winter Games in Japan. As he carried the torch past the location of his former prison camp in Naoetsu, Louie felt nothing but peace and love for life.
Full Summary of Unbroken
In June 1943, Louie Zamperini found himself lost at sea. He was on one of two inflatable rafts with two other American soldiers. They’d been stranded for 27 days and were dehydrated, malnourished, sun-beaten, and exhausted from the constant call to thwart the efforts of circling sharks. Although they didn’t know it, they’d drifted 1000 miles already across the vast sea and into Japanese territory.
Zamperini, 26 years old, was a world-class runner. Just months before, he’d been tapped to be the first person to run a mile in under four minutes. His body, once the grand specimen that competed i…
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Here’s what you’ll find in the full Unbroken summary:
- Prologue: Lost
- Part 1 | Chapter 1: The Wayward Child
- Chapter 2: A Young Man’s Resilience
- Part 2 | Chapter 3: America Goes to War
- Chapter 4: Those Lost and Left Behind
- Part 3 | Chapter 5: Needle in a Haystack
- Chapter 6: The Real Battle Begins
- Part 4 | Chapter 7: The Will to Live
- Chapter 8: Relief At Last
- Part 5 | Chapter 9: American Heroes
- Chapter 10: Redemption
- Exercise: The Ups and Downs of Life
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